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September 1999

Wild As It Ever Was

For almost half a century, California's rugged Ishi Wilderness hid "the last wild Indian." Even today, it is a place that can keep a secret.

“To a degree, Ishi will always remain something of a mystery to us,” says Dr. Starn. “He learned only a few

hundred words of English, and the people he worked with were never able to become fluent in Yahi. Even today, many of his stories, the reams of material he provided, remain untranslated, or at least not fully translated. Much about him remains unanswered.”

We never even knew his real name. “Ishi,” a Yahi word meaning “Man,” was simply a name given him by Kroeber to satisfy the media. We never knew the exact fate of those few members of his tribe who hid for so long with Ishi in Bear’s Hiding Place. We never knew the true depths of the loneliness he must have felt those last three years in the wilderness, knowing he was the last of his people.

These secrets Ishi took to his grave when he died of tuberculosis on March 25, 1916. The last wild Indian in

America was cremated, his ashes buried along with a bow, five arrows, a basket of acorn meal, flakes of

obsidian, and some tobacco. The Yahi were gone.

As Tom and I hike back toward camp, the sun suddenly breaks out, its glare stunningly bright off the now-melting snow. If we wait a few days, we think, we may yet get a chance to hike into Deer Creek Canyon, to search for Bear’s Hiding Place.

While we are breaking camp three hikers wander in and tell us another storm front is expected to drop 6 to 8 more inches of snow in the high country. If we don’t get out now, the road, already dangerous, will become impassable.

We have no choice.

As we reach the trailhead to load up the car, the first wisps of clouds from the approaching storm are already gathering around the peaks. It is difficult to leave without doing what we came for, without clawing our way through Deer Creek Canyon, searching out Bear’s Hiding Place, following in the last footsteps of Ishi and the Yahi people. But perhaps it makes sense after all. This land is still as wild as it ever was, and still knows well how to keep its secrets.

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